Friends like these
Attacks on New Atheism, especially from fellow atheists, are ill-advised, counter productive and play into the hands of the religion apologists, argues Ophelia Benson
When New Humanist editor Caspar Melville, in a recent piece for the Guardian, expressed his boredom with the so-called “New Atheism”, and described it as “irascible, rhetorically florid, sweeping [and] intellectually arrogant”, I disagreed not just because of the content, but also because of the context – the ongoing avalanche of articles and books saying that New Atheism is terrible, terrible, terrible.
Without that context, Caspar’s boredom with New Atheism would have been unexceptionable, perhaps even useful and healthy; in general it’s a good thing to be sceptical of one’s own commitments as well as other people’s. But when an army of opponents are doing the job for you, and often going well beyond scepticism into vituperation and hyperbole and outright misrepresentation, then more of the same kind of thing from people who are otherwise allies tends to exasperate. There is an extra turn of the screw when a large proportion of this backlash comes from other atheists.
This is not because all atheists should agree on everything, much less out of any belief that inter-atheist loyalty should rule out reasoned dissent and criticism; it is because the backlash itself is so full of strawmen, which get recycled with each new instantiation and then harden into the conventional wisdom. Other atheists uncritically jumping on the pile seems perverse and not entirely fair.
The conventional wisdom goes like this: new atheists are aggressive, strident, shrill, militant, and fundamentalist. Their atheism is itself a religion, Richard Dawkins is their saint, and science is their god. They think science can answer all questions and that atheism can prove that god does not exist. They want to stamp out religion entirely, and if they get their way there will be no more art, literature, emotion, love, morality, or beauty.
All of that, of course, is sheer caricature, but parts of it, and sometimes all of it, show up in newspapers and magazines with stunning regularity in the UK, the US, Australia and even Sweden, as I learned on a recent trip to Stockholm hosted by the humanist publishers Fri Tanke.
Useful well-conducted dissent – accurate, careful, reasonable – is vital for getting at the truth, and that kind of dissent among atheists is of course all to the good. But the backlash isn’t like that. It’s political: it’s angry, hostile reaction to a challenge to the status quo. Angry reaction doesn’t have much use for accurate and careful – angry reaction is trying to shut down the opposition, not make it better. If you don’t believe me, just Google a name or two along with “New Atheism” – try Michael Ruse, Andrew Brown, Madeleine Bunting, Mark Vernon, Barney Zwartz, Chris Hedges, Karen Armstrong, Chris Mooney, to name just a few.
Much of this situation – this dispute – is an artefact of the internet. Anything written can be instantly discussed; factions form, then groupthink and othering come into play. Blogs are notoriously liable to this. I’ve seen (and sometimes been part of) many blog arguments about the putative evils of New Atheism in which, when pressed to give actual examples of militant strident aggressive new atheism, the critic will cite comments on a blog.
At least we know where we are when that happens. Blog comments, especially on popular sites, can very quickly generate an atmosphere of mobbing, simply because most regular readers share a point of view. But that is a feature of blog comments and the internet more generally, not of new atheism as such. The picture is further confused because New Atheism can mean the big four (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens), or the big four plus some others, or all of them plus all avowed explicit outspoken atheists. Worst of all, it can mean the big four plus all drive-by shouters on the internet. It is seldom made explicit which is meant, and the result is that critics often oscillate between various meanings without notice. One minute we seem to be talking about best-selling New Atheist writers, and the next it turns out we have in mind an all-caps rant by some angry teenager in North Dakota.
Spare a thought for that teenager though. That’s the other side of all this. Yes there is some noisy atheist ranting and name-calling on the internet, but on the other hand, ten years ago that godless teenager would have thought she was the only atheist in the universe, and now she knows very well she isn’t. Maybe she pushes back a little too hard now and then, but she is feeling liberated and no longer isolated, and that’s a good thing. Eventually atheism will become commonplace, and the drive-by commenters will calm down. The teenager in North Dakota has a better future.